Motoring as it was

A Look Back to the Roads of the 1920s

Looking again at the travels of amateur motoring writer Owen John as a may of reflecting the changed conditions of motoring and how the roads and cars were, back in the now far-away nineteen-twenties, we left him reflecting on loss of a wheel from his trusty Crossley due to careless maintenance, and enjoying driving over roads in the "quiet hidden valleys that lie between the Severn and the Welsh mountains, almost unknown touring ground around Knighton and Ludlow and Monmouth and Tenbury and Bridgnorth . . ." I know it well, even going on, as O.J. put it, "right into outlandish Wales itself'. He made these runs — journey he thought sounded too much like labour and tour implied a set holiday — in the spring of 1923, when, just as this year, "never was there such green, never were such flowers, whether in the gardens, or in hedges or in fields". O.J. was enthusing over a new route he had found, a road that waggled all the way up from Hay, far up the Wye, through Leominster to Tenbury and Bewdley, "which was just as lovely as any road can be". Again, I know it well, but today the drop down to the twisty approach to the narrow bridge over the River Severn at Bewdley is a bottle-neck that can be a time-waster when traffic on the A456 is at its peak, and I have found myself wondering what happens in winter when both sides of the hill become ice-coated . . . O.J. was there for the fishing and it must have been more than disappointed when a young lady caught a 59 3/4 lb spring salmon, his host one of 42 lb but he none at all. . . .

We tend, in those modern times, to imagine that there was practically no traffic congestion during what we now think of as the vintage years. Yet O.J., going to and from Brooklands at Whitsun 1923, not only lost his way in what he called "the rhomboid between Byfleet and Woking, and Sunninghill and Wokingham, but he saw Eton, Ascot, Windsor and Maidenhead that day, driving on five main London roads and encountering huge Whitsuntide traffic and an astonishing number of cars on all of them — but no accidents. But in spite of all the traffic, which by 1984 standards we might not really notice, except that it was traversing far less wide and efficient roads than we do today, O.J. was bewailing the ugly roadside advertising hoardings, getting worse than those in France, he thought, remarking that half the charm of motoring will be gone if we cannot escape, in the country, the trials and the influences of the towns. How true that is, and how disturbing that in our time roads and country lanes are being widened, kerbs erected, ever more road-signs put up and old buildings demolished, until everywhere is very much like everywhere else, or will be if a halt is not soon called.

In this context, O.J. was surprised that in 1923, in poverty-stricken, over-taxed and sadly-enlightened days (he might as well be writing of 1984), there was a scheme afoot to build a Utopian motor-road between Uxbridge and Manchester / Liverpool at a cost of £15,000,000. It was to be free of any speed-limits, have no gradient greater than 1 in 40, it would bridge or tunnel under all other roads, and Lord Montagu, father of the present motor-orientated Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, had published a brochure about it. This idea of a toll-road in Britain never materialised but I wonder what O.J. would have thought of the fine motorway network we now enjoy, toll-free, although subject to the stupid 70 mph speed-limit? As a matter of fact, O.J. was against this idea, saying that although Mr Rapson was of the opinion that the motor car of 1923 was capable of going from the RAC (in London) to Land's End and back 83 times before it would require new tyres or any attention to its engine, cars were used mostly for local trips and if commercial haulage was in question, it would be better to let the railways carry the heavy loads with an agreement for the light lorries to cope with local deliveries — which shows how the entire road transport picture has changed in 60 years and more.

At this time O.J. received a letter from an American in Detroit who saw little commendable in British or European cars. After looking at chassis drawings of the Bean, 15 hp Humber, Sunbeam six, 10 hp Peugeot, etc, he came to the conclusion that no American car would have survived hard going with such light chassis frames, or back axles, and that the engines were under-cooled for severe conditions. He felt that good cars like the Packard, Cadillac, Pierce-Arrow, Locomobile, Marmon, Lincoln, Wills St Clair, Sterns-Knight, etc were not well known here, where the Cadillac had lost caste because so many were used as taxicabs. (This hardly rings true, but that's what the Detroiter said.) He quoted the Packard Little Six selling in Detroit for 2,750 dollars, and cited the Hudson coach at 1,525 dollars which sold 100 a day, against the 2,095 dollar Hudson sedan selling 30 a day, which should not have been compared with our Crossleys and Vauxhalls, etc.

This critic knew a girl tracer who had left Coventry four years earlier and was earning so much in Detroit at the same job that she was able to buy an Essex Coach costing 825 dollars. He was off to the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, where "last year the Bentley toured round the track a hopeless last, the rebuilt Fords passing it every now and then", and where the much-boosted Sunbeam entries had failed so badly that they had hurt British automobile prestige more than anything we could have done. Mercedes — good; M. Henry, Ballot, Peugeot, etc — fine; but the Sunbeam flivver — no. There were about 150,000 cars in Detroit in 1923, said this critic, and he believed the only imported cars were three Rolls-Royces, one Renault, one six-cylinder Wolseley, Horace Dodge Jnr's Hispano-Suiza Six, a Deluge, Napier and another Hispano all owned by Edsel Ford, and a pre-war Darracq. There was, the correspondent concluded, no market for British cars, with the Maxwells. Chevrolets and Buicks selling for 850-1,800 dollars serving the small merchants, young bachelors and prosperous mechanics, etc. O.J. replied, not very effectively, to this criticism and I only quote from the letter because of its possible interest to historians, in this day and age. In fact, that was by no means the end of it, because other US letter-writers got in on the act, one telling O.J.. that the engine of his Crossley was nothing remarkable, that its gearbox was inferior to that in the four-speed Mercer and that American cars were less costly to run. The 1923 Buick Piccadilly roadster was cited as having bodywork that should satisfy every critic and this letter referred to cars some of which I had not previously heard of, such as the Daniels, Leech and Dorris.

Of the Model-T Ford, at which O.J. was thought to have sneered, this American said it was not bought by the man who wanted his car to attract a crowd but because he knew it would take him to any place and bring him back, wouldn't let him down so long as he carried a piece of string, would look the same whether he cleaned it or not, and would not be insulted if he left it out all night or took the pig to market in it instead of his wife. . .

Coming from motoring to motors, after O.J. had complained of the congestion caused in the London of 1923 by trams and thought with the then-Lord Montagu of Beaulieu that horse-drawn drays should he abolished altogether (I wonder if the same might not be said of bicycles in these 1980s?), O.J. went off to try the 10/23 hp Talbot. Having been exercising my Talbot-Darracq Eight of late, I was interested that he found no difference in these different sizes of Talbot except one of roominess within. Both, he found, moved fast, both had simple, easy gear-shifting (the clutch on my car is fierce), and both Talbots had springing and balance hard to improve upon. One critic thought the 10/23's engine a trifle rough, but O.J. didn't, and anyway Major Eric Loder who had provided the test-car said it had come straight from the paint shop without having been tuned-up.

After that O.J. went up to Dudley, to look over the Bean factory — years later I went to the same place to buy a vintage Rhode tourer, but that is a very different story! He found the Bean workpeople touchy folk in one respect; they maintained that they were the primeval iron-workers of this country, with skills unmatched by anyone else. After his visit, O.J. felt that the Bean was an honest car, built to last, indeed, almost too solid in places, and he thought the tool box / accumulator, where fuel tanks are usually put, gave a slightly heavy appearance and too low a ground-clearance (this is double-Dutch to me but not, I imagine, to members of the Bean Register!). He didn't quite like the Bean "lion" mascot either, but approved of the rh-change four-speed gearbox.

The next car O.J. sampled was a Studebaker Six tourer, which he misjudged at first because it was American and the contour of its seats looked wrong. On the run out of London a back tyre inflated to only 20 lb / sq in caused what we would these days term understeer (if his "running-out" on corners wasn't oversteer!) but later he formed a very high opinion of the Study, although adding a snide piece about "in its youth", implying that it might not wear as well as a British car. It was a top-gear job that held five people, it would touch 60 mph, it didn't look blatant like so many American autos, the driver had his own entrance, the gearchange was delightful, and it cost under £400 with "all refinements" except a back-windscreen. The snags as seen by the Crossley-minded O.J. were lack of luggage room, a "gallop" at high speed, bodywork that allowed for "shrinkage and swellage" whatever that implied, and a slight restriction on leg-room if you had O.J.'s long legs.

Driving this Studebaker along more than 10 miles of grass, chalk and flint-covered roads going from East Ilsley to the Thames Valley, with ruts a foot deep just due north of Churn Camp, O.J. failed to make the flywheel bang on the ridges between these ruts(!). Only the brakes came in for real criticism, in view of the speed of which this 1923 Studebaker Six was capable (was this an O.J. perception of front-wheel-brakes soon to come on the better British cars?). As far as the Great Portland Street agents knew, much of the car emanated from Canada, and many Studies were fitted with British bodies. Even so, O.J. wished it were British, seeing it as a very great menace to our home products. — W. B.

(To be continued when space permits)